Seeing for Oneself

Dubbed a “dharma brat” since childhood, Ethan Nichtern describes how he found his own path to Buddhist practice.

Ethan Nichtern

I’m not a dharma brat. This is the term that’s sometimes given to the tiny group of us who grew up in America as the children of Buddhist convert parents. Technically speaking, this title would definitely apply to me: both my parents were serious students in the Tibetan tradition of Shambhala Buddhism for years before I was born. For the first two years of my life, my father was the codirector of a large rural meditation center. My first steps were taken in a large dining hall to the loud applause of a group of American Buddhist lay practitioners eating dinner. My parents tell me I was the unofficial mascot of the retreat center. So whoever came up with the term “dharma brat” definitely had someone like me in mind.

But there’s something essentially wrong with that title. In it there seems to be a playful suggestion that, while some people have to search high and low and with great hardship to find a spiritual path that rings true to them, a “dharma brat” gets the truth spoon-fed to him from birth, even to the point of becoming spoiled by the process. But the Buddhist teachings don’t work like that. There is no truth available external to one’s own experience of it, no way to be spoon-fed the dharma as if it were a bowl of creamed carrots. It’s not even possible to be a second-generation Buddhist because there’s no way to be second-generation to your own experience. You can’t just inherit this family business. I think that is what frustrated me the most growing up: people telling me in a variety of ways how lucky I was to have been born into a tradition of wisdom and compassion. But even up through my teenage years, I could never make much connection between my ex-hippie artistic parents’ New Age church group and any sense of definitive truth that could be of use to me or anyone else in the world. I found more wisdom and compassion in exploring the vibrant, eclectic landscape of my New York City youth than I ever found sitting cross-legged in front of a shrine topped with candles and incense and visually cluttered thangka paintings and photographs of a lot of doofy-looking Tibetan men, focusing my attention on my breath and thinking to myself, “Yeah, I’m breathing.

That’s your big fuckin’ realization, my man? Good for you, Siddhartha.” Eventually, though, something began to change in my attitude.

Change is always more visible in looking at the endpoints of a timeline than in examining the flowing stretch in between. It’s an uneven hill, not a fixed staircase, and only through pinpoint snapshots is impermanence revealed. Recently I looked in the mirror. I was wearing a simple piece of red string around my neck, a “protection cord” I had received when I took the Bodhisattva Vow, formally declaring my intention to dedicate this life to the benefit of all sentient beings. Around my left wrist was wrapped a string of sandalwood mala beads. To top it off, dangling from a thin black cord around my neck, falling to the level of my heart center, hung a little silver pendant of Shakyamuni Buddha in the earth-touching posture. And all I could think to myself was, “Yeah, I’m breathing. What a wonderful realization!” It was at the end of a several-year-long period of thrusting myself more wholeheartedly than I ever had before into meditation practice and the intensive study of Buddhism; a year in which seven months had been spent living at a meditation center in rural Vermont—the same center where I had taken my first steps. It was the end of a period in which it had become more than clear that meditation practice wasn’t just a gimmicky relic of my parents’ hippie days, and being from a Buddhist family wasn’t just something I told girls to get them more interested in me. It was my thing now.

And I claimed it as mine because it was relevant. The human Buddha and the human teachers who have followed him had something to say to me concerning the real conditions of my life, and I was ready to listen. And I was ready to listen not because of some exotic form of thought, or because of aesthetic attraction to some new set of cultural trappings, or because my parents had somehow brainwashed me, but because what was being taught informed my experience directly. The teachings resonated with me because I examined for myself, through the practice of meditation, each and every statement made about the nature of the human mind. I was finally beginning to accept that I couldn’t escape my own mind, and I was starting to see how the world around me both produced and was produced by that same mind.

The first thing I saw when I got back to New York City after a recent retreat was Times Square. Somehow my ride went straight from the highway into the “crossroads of the world.” It was an overwhelming change of scenery. The muted winter landscape of northern Vermont was replaced without segue by a daunting urban scene without even a square inch of visual space in which the eye or mind could rest. Huge images overhung crowds of people, an advertising onslaught conveying no coherent message to no one in particular. Any straightforward effect that one digital billboard could have was instantly overshadowed by the next, leaving me with only the vague desire to consume something, anything—sex, soda, cellphones, people, information, even spirituality. It seemed like the air itself had been injected with a strange blend of caffeine and Viagra. My gaze, softened by retreat, got jittery in a hurry. In this space without space, the Pepsi logo was inextricably tattooed to Britney Spears’s breasts, and Britney Spears’s breasts were in turn tattooed to the insides of my eyelids.

The second thing I saw when I got back to New York City was a group of young people protesting. It was the weekend of the World Economic Forum in New York, a group of international business representatives meeting privately at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel to discuss economic matters directly affecting our entire world. Traffic was snarled, and sirens sounded everywhere as our car approached Lower Manhattan’s East Village. From time to time, huge vans full of cops in riot gear sped past us. After a long traffic jam, we saw the source of the disturbance.


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